The Inca Trail Ollantaytambo to Wayllabamba
This is the easiest part of the trail. It starts at approximately 2800 m (9,000 ft) along the Urubamba River. The scenery is that of small farms and agriculture land. Cultivation is most prominent near the junction with Cusichaca River. Tall Eucalyptus globulus (Eucalipto) trees dominate the valley floor. These originally Australian trees are now the most important source of timber and firewood in the area. If the trees are in bloom with flowers like fluffy white brushes, they are intensively visited by hummingbirds.Scottish Broom: Spartium junceum (Retama) is another introduced and now rampant species. Nevertheless, the bright yellow flowers (Picture) brighten up the landscape.Tecoma sambucifolia (Huaranhuay) is another bright yellow flowering shrub that is quite common. Near houses the white flowering Sambucus peruviana (Sauco) is planted. Opuntia sp., Schinchus molle (Molle), and Prunus capuli (Capuli) are also common near homesteads.Once you move into the Cusichaca valley you can clearly see the vegetation zones along the slopes (picture). In the valley bottom, there is a scrubby forest with Agave americana (Maguey), , Furcraea andina (Maguey). Cestrum sp., Fuchsia boliviana, Passiflora tripartita, Erythrina edulis (Pisonay) and others. Distinctive is the very spiny "Tara" tree or Caesalpina spinosa.The zone above this low valley forest is low, open scrubland which, when seen from a distance appears as a hazy green layer. This zone is dominated by the low shrub Dodonaea viscosa (Chamana) of the Sapindaceae family. Above this Chamana zone starts grassland or real Puna. Chamana is very flamable but resitant to fire itself. The annual fires started by the farmers to maintain the Puna for pasture kill nearly everything else in the Chamana belt and thus maintain the virtually pure stands of this species.On steep cliffs a number of Bromeliads can be found Puya densiflora is a terrestrial species with narrow, spiny leaves. Tillandsia paleacea is small species with purple flowers growing on rocks. The large Bromeliad covering steep rock slopes is possibly Tillandsia fendleri (picture). The orchid Epidendrum secundum is also found here but not as common as later on near Machu Picchu.A common shrub or small tree near farmhouses higher up the valley is Nicotiana tomentosa (Camasto) which is a type of Tobacco. The plant is not very attractive but usually bears large bunches of pinkish flowers which are simply irresistible to humming birds. It is worth while to wait here and catch a glimpse of the Giant hummingbird. This species is indeed a giant among the hummingbirds and apart from its size it is characterized by its(compared to other hummers at least) slow wing beat.Other hummingbirds I saw here include the Sparkling violet ear (Colibri coruscans) and the Long tailed-sylph (Aglaiocercus kingii).A true gem along this trail is the spiny shrub Barnadesia macbridae/horrida (Llaulli). This plant is an Asteraceae (Compositae) but has very unusual flowers for an Asteraceae. The flowers are shaped as a small trumpet and combined with the bright pink color, it is obvious that the species has evolved to attract Hummingbirds as pollinatorsAnd indeed, Hummingbirds are strongly attracted to the Llaulli flower. Therefore, if you like bird watching, it is good to keep an eye open for this plant.This section of the trail ends in Wayllabamba at approximately 3000 meters (9,400 ft). After here the going will get a lot tougher
Wayllabamba to Phuyopatamarca
This part of the trek is the most strenuous. Soon after you leave Wayllabamba, you can see the next goal; Warmiwañusca at 4265 m (13,650 ft) looming way in the distance. The first section of the trail goes through a similar valley-bottom forest as we saw along the Cusichaca valley. Only it is somewhat higher here, possibly because of diminishing human disturbance. Officially this forest is classified as "Submontane, Subtropical, Very Humid Forest". Species that I noted here include Alnus acuminata/jorulensis, Fuchsia boliviana, Barnadesiamacbridae/horrida (Llaulli), Oreopanax ischnolobus (Maqui Maqui), Passiflora tripartita, Piper elongatum (Moco Moco) Rubus bogotensis, Lycopersicon parviflorum (Climbing with yellow flowers), Duranta armata, Stenomesson pearce (Amarylidaceae), Clusia sp. This forest is quite dense with an understory of ferns. Sometimes the trail comes out of the forest and reaches into the Puna. Such spots are good places to see butterflies. When you dive back into the forest, it has become a "Polylepis forest" This unique forest is dominated by Polylepis spp (Queuña). This forest with its gnarled trees covered with moss and a dense understory of herbs, is quite enchanting. Around every corner you expect a troll or at least a hobbit. No such thing occurs here though, but the forest is teeming with birds.Polylepis belong to the Rosaceae family and is easily recognized by it's pinately compound leaves with expanded petiole base (see drawing right). The thin, flaky, reddish bark and thick trunks with twisting branches are another good characteristic. The genus is strictly Andean and forming almost pure stands at altitudes that should support Puna.Unfortunately, Polylepis forest is one of the most threatened forest types in the world. Originally it covered large areas in the high Andes, but generations of farmers burning the Puna to provide grazing for Llamas and Alpacas have reduced the forest cover immensely. Mature Polylepis can survive fire, but seedlings and young trees can not. As a result, the Polylepis forest shrinks a little after every Puna fire. For more information see the links that I put in the left margin.Ultimately, you leave the forest behind and come into the real Puna. This is an open landscape dominated by grasses (Ichu). This last stretch to the first pass is steep and strenuous. You may see grazing Llamas and Alpacas here. If you are lucky you may see raptors soaring above you. The Condor is very rare and threatened by extinction, so don't have your hopes too high for this one, but the most common larger bird is the Mountain Caracara. This attractive bird often allows close up looks.On top of the Warmiwañusca at 4265 m (13,650 ft) you may want to indulge in a snow fight, if you have any energy left that is. Having come so high, it is kind of depressing to look down on the steep downward trail but there are interesting things to see here. Just below the pass, there is a curious collection of huge boulders, this is where Viscachas live. These rabit-like relatives of the Chinchilla (which is now extinct in the wild) often just sit there on a boulder, looking rather sleepy. They are usually so inactive that you may suspect that they are really just stuffed animals.At the bottom of this slope lies Pacaymayu (3500 m - 11,200 ft). This is the largest camp site along the trail and quite a depressing place because of its frequent overcrowding. The camp lies at the tip of a Polylepis forest that follows the valley towards the Urubamba River, way below. This forest shows clear signs of recent fire damage.From Pacamayu it is up again into the Puna towards the second pass which lies just above Runcurakay. Along the trail grow many Odentoglossum mystacinum orchids.Near the second pass (3963 m - 12,680 ft) there are some small alpine "black water" lakes. Typically there is hardly any vegetation in these lakes, but some of these lakes are now filling up with vegetation. Possibly a result of nutrient input due to vast amounts of hikers and their porters defecating nearby?These lakes are supposedly also good sites to see deer, but I didn't even find any tracks of deer, so they are probably very scarce.
Below the second pass, you plunge back into the Polylepis or Queuña forest. The forest is actually quite similar to a cloud forest. As in a real cloud forest the trees are often laden with Epiphytes such as Bromeliads and Orchids. Very soon you will reach to an more open spot which actually has a Sphagnum or Peat Bog. The vegetation here is low, more like an "elfin forest" Many orchids and other interesting low plants can be found here. Very characteristic is a small treefern (or at least a fern with a trunk) that I initially mistook to be a Cycad.From here on, the last stretch to Phuyopatamarca (3711 m - 11,875 ft) is not that strenuous.
Phuyopatamarca to Machu Picchu
The views from Phuyopatamarca (3711 m - 11,875 ft) are breath taking and you might wish to spend a longer time here. But Machu Picchu is beckoning! The trip is mostly down from now on. Very soon we enter forest again. Initially there is still Polylepis but soon the forest changes and we renew our acquaintance with species as Oreopanax ischnolobus, Alnus acuminata/jorulensis, Clusia sp., Fuchia sp., Piper elongatum etc. Unfortunately, the forest is strongly degraded by past fires.Finally the forest gets a more tropical character. Species found here include Melastomataceae, Anthuriums, Begonia's, Lichens, Mosses etc.An interesting plant is Begonia parviflora. The Begonias that we are familiar with are low herbs that perform very well as a potted plant on our windowsill. But this species is actually a small tree!In spite of the fire damage that is obvious to the trained eye, this forest is again quite enchanting. Also along this road are some of the more amazing Inca sites that the normal visitor to Machu Picchu never gets to see.Finally at the Sun Gate - Inti Puncu (2760 m - 8,800 ft), just after you have lamented "I thought we were supposed to go down", there lies Machu Picchu below you in the haze!This is the reward of a long hike and for many hikers a very emotional moment. From here on it is a long and (unshaded) rush to the site and many might forget to look at the plants along the trail. Particularly common are various orchids such as the Sobralia's and the Winya Wayna or Epidendrum secundum which comes in orange and pink varieties.Once you are in Machu Picchu (2430 m - 7,870 ft) and feeling reckless, you might want to climb the famous Huana Picchu (or Wayna Picchu, the spelling varies)(2640 m - 8,450 ft). After all, it is there! and you are now fully trained!The climb of Huana Picchu however, is something else. It is not that far, but steeper than any other part of the trail. Also, it is rather dangerous. The climb is steep and crowded with people trying to pass each other on narrow stairways. The soil through which the trail is carved is clinging rather precariously on the steep rock and sooner or later parts of it may simply slide down. Hope you are not there when this happens!Should you decide to go, and the weather is nice, you will be rewarded with stunning views and interesting plant life. This is where I finally found the Masdevallia veitschiana orchid Near the entrance gate of the park Erythrina edulis (Pisonay) is common and very colorful. From the entrance gate to Machu Picchu it is still a ways down to Aguas Calientes (2000 m - 6,400 ft). Going down you will notice that the vegetation gradually gets more tropical. This is especially the case at the bottom of the valley where typically tropical plants such as Heliconia become abundant. One noticeable difference with a tropical forest though... you will see no wild palms here (apart from some planted in Hotel gardens)!This concludes my ecological interpretation of the Inca Trail. Much more remains to be said and shown, but there is no space left and you have to discover it on your own. Enjoy!